Physical space always served as a support for human expression: inscriptions on stones, statues, billboards, posters, and so on. However, the production of location-based information is usually restricted and controlled by government powers, which have the authority to choose what can be publicly displayed, and what should be hidden (Farman, 2011). With the development of digital mobile media, space has gained new dimensions, resulting in a sort of hybrid space where digital information overlays the physical space revealing what was previously unknown as well as creating opportunities for new forms of expression, interpretations, and practices of space.
As of today, we have barely scratched the surface of how human expression can be represented in hybrid spaces. So, let me describe fours mobile media practices to produce location-based information and interactions within hybrid spaces: Digital Mapping, Urban Annotation, Mobile Games, and Smart Mobs.
We know that maps are a distortion of reality. They are full of heuristic methods, persuasive interests, and hegemonic ideology layered on top of political and economic formations in order to perpetuate a dominant discourse. However, it is possible to act against this method of map-making. Instead of using institutional political conventions, different results could emerge if people designed their own maps using contextual information and mobile technologies.
There are many ways to draw a map; a fairly simple one is the act of walking. So, using tracking devices and other affordances of mobile media, people can have a new sensorial engagement with space. For example, Nike+, a smartphone application developed by Nike, enables runners to track their routes. Nike+ collects GPS data to calculate runner location and speed to draw a run map. The combination of many users using Nike+ produces crowd-sourced digital maps.
The power to track our movements on the streets is to take control of the space: our position in space is used to retrieve locational information, augmenting our levels of understating and implacement. Therefore, by taking control of the space using mobile media, users build new meaning into places. Digital maps can “represent people, community and a more legitimate space and place that show how people see and fell their environment” (Lemos, 2010, p. 416).
More than just walk and track our movements, mobile media allows people to add new information to space in the digital dimension. Since mobile devices empower people with a means of communication able to both broadcast and aggregate information to and from different sources, multiple images of the city can be produced with and retrieved from contextual multimedia hybrid space information.
New methods of community formation and experience of space are produced by the numerous distributed geotagging platforms like Flickr, Foursquare, Wikipedia, Google Maps, and many others. Let me give you a quick example on which urban annotation can help us to better understand our history at the same time that it brings a vivid experience of the past. Created by the Museum of London, Streetmuseum uses hundreds of images from its collection to create a unique perspective of the old and the new London. The application takes advantage of the camera and GPS to create augmented realities, combining the present and the past in one single image (Museum of London, 2010).
But this is designed by an institution, with a clear goal in mind. Foursquare, on the other hand, has a crowd-sourced approach. This app locates you in space and shows points of interests mapped in the surrounded area — restaurants, airports, schools, public buildings, parks, and so on. Its more than 50 million users can decide if they want to check-in in this places, share pictures, reviews, and comments, or add new venues that are more relevant to them.
Thus, we can use geolocation functions to revalue everyday practices and make meaningful connections: with community participation, maps and urban annotation can represent and express a variety of experiences, looks, and ideologies, enabling other ways to represent space.
Mobile media inscription are not only about history or different ways to find places. We can also transform and distort the space in a ludic way by playing locational mobile games: connecting contextual physical environments and the digital space, we transform movements of everyday life into actions in the game world. That is, the embodied space becomes hybrid, integrating physical objects, location, and people as assets of the digital interaction.
There are plenty of games that use mobile media affordance. To cite one, Ingress, developed by Google, consists of establishing “portals” at public places to create virtual triangular fields over geographic areas. The game has a complex science fiction backstory with the player split into two factions, Enlightened and Resistance, fighting against each other to control these hybrid physical/virtual areas in a continuous open narrative.
As we can see, the game experience in location-based mobile games exists in the tension between physical and electronic spaces. When players move through a space to perform required tasks, “their movements and purposes transform the space as the space of play” (Farman, 2011, p. 86).
Finally, Smartmob is a tactic for mobilization coordinated through decentralized network channels to perform political or aesthetic actions. Today, smart mobs use mobile and social media to communicate and organize actions in order to temporally repurpose public and private spaces, especially in large urban centres.
The urban space is indeed the site where the formation of new claims by informal political actors materializes and assumes concrete forms (Sassen, 2006). We heard a lot about how Arab Spring and the Occupy movements made use of mobile and social media to quickly disseminate information through individual connections. Let me give another example of decentralizing political movement.
#vemprarua, also known 20 cent manifestations [Manifestações dos 20 centavos], was similar to Occupy. The protest was initially organized against a (20 cent) increase in public transportation fare in São Paulo, Brazil, in early June 2013. Between June 17 and 20 a massive protest spread out across the country: more than 2 million people in 100 cities took to the streets to raise their voices against a myriad of different topics, mostly for a better transportation system. Again, mobile and social media had an important role as tools for organizing, mobilizing, communicating, and broadcasting information.
Since from the beginning mass media channels (TV and radio) were poorly covering the protests, making a clear statement that they were against the movement, some participants began to live broadcast the event using mobile media devices — a practice named mídia ninja — producing an independent and direct communication channel with people outside the event.
For these movements, mobile media become important tactical tools of resistance in postmodern urban public spaces (De Certeau, 2002). Through a decentralized network, smart mobs could not just organize in one location, but instead be global in scope and form a bigger community across multiple geographical spaces. Participants of these “instant communities” may not know each other until the action takes place: they are a group of strangers; they are a multitude.
According to Farman (2001), the “act of storytelling is indeed an act of inscription. It is a writing of place, of identities, and of relationships” (p. 118). Traditional site-specific media only accommodates a singular story, favouring the hegemonic power. Mobile media break with this logic and offer new dimensions to spatial storytelling, expanding public participation in urban inscription.
However, as technology evolves and the adoption of mobile media increases, we need to think through not only the opportunities but also consequences of these new forms of interaction with other people and with space. Since mobile media is also a mediation system based on algorithms, I feel that we should start to ask the same sort of questions raised by Nichols in 1988 about cybernetics: Who designs and controls these systems? For what purpose? If the requirement to use a technological interface that mediates us through this new mode of participation is in itself a form of exclusion, whoever owns and controls these communication systems also has some control over our sensorial engagement with the world.
De Certeau, M. (2002). The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press.
Farman, J. (2011). Mobile Interface Theory: Embodied Space and Locative Media (1st ed.). New York, NY, USA: Routledge.
Foursquare. (2014, May). Foursquare by the numbers (last updated May 2014) [Website]. Retrieved July 3, 2014, from https://foursquare.com/about
Harpold, T. (1999). Dark Continents: A Critique of Internet Metageographies. Postmodern Culture, 9(2). Retrieved from http://muse.jhu.edu.login.ezproxy.library.ualberta.ca/journals/postmodern_culture/v009/9.2harpold.html
Lemos, A. (2010). Post-Mass Media Functions, Locative Media, and Informational Territories: New Ways of Thinking About Territory, Place, and Mobility in Contemporary Society. Space and Culture, 13(4), 403–420. doi:10.1177/1206331210374144
Museum of London. (2010). Streetmuseum App. Retrieved May 29, 2013, from http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/Resources/app/you-are-here-app/home.html
Nichols, B. (2003). The Work of Culture in the Age of Cybernetic System. In N. Wardrip-Fruin & N. Montfort (Eds.), The New Media Reader (1st ed., pp. 625–642). Cambridge, Mass.; London: The MIT Press.
Sassen, S. (2006). Why cities matter. Catalogue of the 10th International Architecture Exhibition, Venice Biennale, 26–51.
Paper presented at INKE ID Conference, Chicago, USA, September 2014.